Wartime family treasures recovered in local antique shop

Denne / Den

Left: Captain Ambrose (Jack) Denne, Royal Canadian Air Force.
Right: Lieutenant (Navy) Donald Den. Photos supplied.

Lt(N) Donald Den, 
HMCS Malahat Public Affairs Officer

I have been fascinated with my family history for as long as I can remember, and I have always treasured pieces of my family’s past that have been passed down to me. However, a recent coincidental family discovery made me believe in the unbelievable.

As a recent Navy-oriented hobby, I have amassed a decent coin collection, including several HMCS coins from different eras. For this reason, I found myself at the local military antique shop downtown Victoria, Command Post Militaria and Antique. As I am, by no means, the only Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) member in Victoria who collects them, it was unsurprising that they did not have any coins available.

I passed dozens of boxes holding thousands of old and new military photos on the way out.

“We get photos all the time, from legions, people drop off boxes, it’s quite extensive,” noted the shop owner, Brent Fletcher.

While glancing at one of the boxes, I noticed a black-and-white photo of a man in a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) uniform and had to do a double take.

This could be my grandfather, I thought.

It didn’t seem possible, but I began noticing tell-tale signs. The lapel pins marking his status as a Medical Officer, the ‘RCAF’ crest on his peak cap that I kept in my office, and the familiarity in the face of the man I had called ‘Papa’ in my youth.

When I joined the RCN in April 2016 as a Public Affairs Officer with Victoria’s Naval Reserve Division, HMCS Malahat, I was not the first member of my family to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). My great uncle on my father’s side, Surgeon-Captain (Navy) Lemuel Prowse, was a career Naval officer on the East Coast, also serving as Commanding Officer of Charlottetown’s Naval Reserve Division HMCS Queen Charlotte from 1960-1964. My grandfather, Captain Ambrose (Jack) Denne, served as a Medical Officer for the RCAF, based out of CFB Borden, during the Second World War.

As the ‘keeper’ of my family’s historical archives, I have in my possession several items from both of their CAF careers, including patches, cufflinks, and photos. However, the one thing I did not have was a photo of my grandfather (Papa) in his RCAF uniform. I knew it had to exist, but I had accepted it was lost to history at that point.

Hurriedly, I texted a photo of the photo to my mother.

“Yes, Donald, that’s your Papa,” she said. “I’d know that face anywhere.”

It is important to note that my grandfather had lived and served in Ontario nearly eighty years ago, and no one in my family was ever based out of Victoria.

Upon further investigation, I could locate two additional photos: a wedding photo of my grandparents from the early 1940s and a photo of my grandfather golfing in Ontario in the 1960s. While I had a wedding photo of my grandparents, I had never seen this one, nor the one of him at the Scarborough Golf Club.

When I presented the photos to Brent, the shop owner, and told him they were of my grandfather, he just gave them to me.

“It was amazing that you found those photos amongst all the others. I couldn’t charge you for making that find,” Brent said.

I have since consulted several CAF serving members, veterans, and historians on how my grandfather’s RCAF portrait and the other photos ended up in a box in this store in downtown Victoria. They all are just as baffled as the surviving members of my family who would have known of the existence of the photos.

“I think it’s incredible that Lieutenant (Navy) Den was able to make that discovery, and I am happy he has this important piece of his family’s military history back with him,” commented Commander Cameron Miller, HMCS Malahat’s Commanding Officer.

I consider it providence that I found these photos when I was promoted to Lieutenant (Navy), as the rank is equivalent to a Captain in the RCAF, the same rank my grandfather was. I like to think, in some way, it was a little gift from him on occasion. Whatever the reason, I am forever grateful these pieces of my family’s history have found their way home.

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